BUFFALO – Sixteen days and eight games later, rookie Cody Hodgson, a centerpiece of the NHL trade deadline’s most-talked about transaction, is pointless and skating with Brad Boyes and Corey Tropp on what could be considered the Sabres’ fourth line.
Meanwhile, defenseman Alexander Sulzer, a throw-in to the deal with Vancouver, just played a tick under 24 minutes, a season high.
The German, a spare part a week ago, has possibly cemented a spot for the season. He’s forming a strong duo beside $10 million defender Christian Ehrhoff and has one more point than Hodgson.
But what’s going on with Hodgson, the No. 2 center the Sabres coveted? The 22-year-old started strongly and appeared on the verge of breaking out after the Sabres sent prospect Zack Kassian to the Canucks for him Feb. 27.
“It’ll come. I’m not concerned,” coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday after the ninth-place Sabres, who fell four points behind Washington for the final playoff spot hours later, prepared for tonight’s home tilt against the Colorado Avalanche. “I think you look at it and it’s obviously disappointing, but it’ll come.”
Ruff used Pittsburgh’s James Neal as an example. Neal scored once in 20 games last year after the Penguins acquired him from Dallas. The winger has 31 goals and 65 points in 68 contests this season.
“It’s not working out, then all of a sudden it works out,” Ruff said. “For the most part, I’ve been happy. (Hodgson’s) been in on some great opportunities that he hasn’t finished. But he’ll finish.”
Hodgson, who has 16 goals and 33 points, has only finished once in the last 16 games, however. His slump goes back to early February. In the past 21 games, he has two goals and three points.
“Not necessarily frustrating. But I think chances are there,” Hodgson said. “A couple broken sticks, posts, stuff like that just aren’t going in. I’m a pretty positive person. I like to stay pretty upbeat. I know I’m this close to the next shot going in. It’s coming.”
With 71 games under his belt, it looks like Hodgson’s smashed into that freshman wall. He had never played more than 68 regular-season contests at any major level.
Factor in a dizzying acclimation to the Sabres, and you have a player struggling mightily.
Tuesday’s practice marked his first regular session on First Niagara Center ice during an off day. He’s played six road games and just two home tilts. In fact, including his Canucks tenure, he’s played 15 of his last 21 games away.
Hodgson flew from Phoenix to Buffalo for a physical and then jetted back across to the country to meet the Sabres in Anaheim before he could play.
Then there’s the mental and physical fatigue of playing. Hodgson’s gone from a supporting member on a stacked Canucks club to a top-line player counted on for production. The expectations have changed considerably.
“You can’t really make excuses,” Hodgson said. “I’m a professional athlete. I’m excited about playing. There’s still adrenaline going. There’s still excitement. I’m playing with good players.”
Hodgson’s minutes have shot up from about 12 or so a game to 16:38 a night with the Sabres. He skated a career-high 21:48 in Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win in Ottawa.
With other lines performing well, most notably the trio of Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, Hodgson’s minutes dipped to 11:07 in Monday’s 3-2 overtime win against Montreal.
“He’s gone through a real tough stretch,” Ruff said. “He was on the road with Vancouver, got traded to us, was on the road. I’ve played him some pretty heavy minutes. I played him real heavy minutes in Ottawa. I saw a little bit of fatigue there of what he’s gone through and the emotions of being traded and the circumstances around it.”
Ruff said he told Hodgson, “‘Don’t get frustrated. You went from the most minutes maybe in Ottawa to lesser minutes last game. Part of that was how well Ennis, Stafford and Foligno had played.’ I said, ‘Just let it happen. Don’t look for points or cheat for points. Just play your game.’”
Of course, playing beside Tropp, an impressive rookie, and Boyes, a former 43-goal scorer, isn’t necessarily a demotion. Hodgson first played between Ennis and Stafford.
“I would argue that in the first period (Monday) Corey Tropp might’ve been our best player,” Ruff said. “So I don’t think that was a demotion by any sense. Inside of every game there’s guys that are going well.
“I think if you got a guy that’s making the plays that even Corey Tropp is making and you got a guy that gets in there as quick as him, it should open up more stuff for you.”